Nature sending us a message about climate change

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Mike Robinson is a Troy Media columnist
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VANCOUVER, BC Jun 21, 2015/ Troy Media/ -First Clayoquot Warrior, then Mission Bell, Pacific, Capistrano, Lady Bligh, Lady Clementine Mitford, Catawbience, Firestorm, and finally Roseum Elegans. That is the order that the Skelhp Rhododendrons have bloomed every year since they were planted in 2008. This year they all followed the prescribed order one more time in sequence, but starting more than two weeks earlier.

What once began on April 20 with The Clayoquot Warriors, now begins on April 2. The last to bloom – the Roseum Elegans – began on the 20th of May this year.

Here at Skelhp there are plenty of other changes occurring. On February 28 we observed a first ever shore-line swim past by over 100 Pacific White-sided Dolphins. The entire pod raced by our rocky foreshore early in the morning, no more than 10 yards offshore. Old timers said they had never seen this behaviour before. Speculation ran from pursuing orcas, their natural predators, (we saw none), to the Dolphins pursuing new feed – either herring or hake (a small cod fish that we used to call Tommy cod as kids) – that have begun a resurgence in the warming waters of the Salish Sea. Normally, the Pacific White-sides have lived off the west coast of Vancouver Island in the open Pacific.

Climate change bites back

Cuddles (so-named by my daughter), the three year old Skelhp Black bear, emerged from his den this year sometime in late March. By early April there were bear feces loaded with Salmon berry seeds scattered up and down the gravel road to the gate. Last year, the Salmon berries ripened in late April and early May. This year by late May Cuddles was gaining weight, and had developed a gleaming black coat of fur. His feces piles are now much larger as Thimble berries, Salaals and Huckleberries begin to ripen.

climate change
The grand old matriarch of the Douglas Firs, easily 500 years old, is quickly losing her remaining green needles

Out on the water things are changing too. This week I fished off Lasqueti Island with my brothers-in-law, and we caught four Chinook salmon ranging in size from 12 to 24 pounds. We took them all on down riggers, very early in the morning, at 90 to 130 foot depths with anchovy baits. What was interesting was their relative availability. Local fishermen (nobody hereabouts says “fishers”) speculate that a Chinook resurgence is occurring. When we cleaned our fish, none of them had the customary stomachs full of herring. All were stuffed with hake. That too is a local change.

Back at Skelhp we had our first 2015 ocean swim on June 7. It was at the end of a long, hot day, with temperatures inland reaching 28 degrees Celsius. It was a bit cooler down by the water, but once in the water was warm enough to breast-stroke about for half an hour. The 2014 first swim was on 29 June, in very similar conditions. Back in 2004, when we first bought our land, we didn’t swim until July.

May 2015 was the driest on record on the Northwest Coast. At Skelhp the total rainfall for the month was five centimetres. Normally, May registers over 60. Today as I walk through the first growth Douglas firs on the foreshore, many are beginning to show signs of heat stress. The grand old matriarch of the firs, easily 500 years old, is quickly losing her remaining green needles. Many of her lower branches are now what we used to call “widow makers” when I worked as a logger. You’d want to be careful not to walk directly below in a South-Easter.

Climate change causing drought in western Canada

As I began to think of how to conclude this piece, I glanced over the Monday, June 15 edition of the Globe and Mail. The banner headline in the British Columbia section read: “Signs of drought in western Canada.” While the article dealt mostly with the disappearing snowpacks in the Rocky Mountains, it also referenced the extreme low water levels in the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island. The article clearly linked the Western Canadian drought conditions to the severe drought in California, and more recently the statewide drought emergency in Washington State, and the severe drought in 15 of Oregon’s 36 counties.

It seems reasonable from my local observations to conclude that Skelhp is experiencing the same phenomenon, just a little later in the spring than further south. The Rhododendrons, the Pacific White-sides, Cuddles, the Chinooks, and the ocean temperature in June are all sending us the same message on climate change. It is ironic in the extreme that humans are the last species to understand what is going on, given that they caused the problem in the first place.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. He currently writes for a broad range of Canadian media, and consults to the boards of start-up NGOs.

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